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Talking with Scott McClanahan

Talking with Scott McClanahan

work safe or die trying copy

A few years ago, I got a few Scott McClanahan books in the mail. They came on a Thursday night and I took them to work with me the next day. I remember reading some of Hill William on my lunch break at the oil refinery, in the welding shop, where it was cool and quiet, even though it was the dead of summer in NJ. 

When my lunch break was over and my boss walked in, I was annoyed to have to go back to work. I took the book with me in my back pocket and off we went back to the demolition job we were doing. 

When my shift was over, I hopped in my car. My wife was on a bus headed down from the city where she worked, and I was trying to intersect her bus at a gas station in Toms River. We’d go together to the beach to get drunk and sunburnt. Problem was, I hit traffic the whole way down. Bumper to bumper, stop and go. But it wasn’t all that bad, I was able to pull Hill William off the passenger side seat and read it as we inched along Route 9, and then inched along the Garden State Parkway. 

I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to be stuck in traffic.

At one point, I looked behind me in the rearview mirror at miles of shiny cars in the shimmering heat. We were crawling forward at about a mile an hour, but there was van back there in the distance, the driver laying on the horn and making all these complicated moves in traffic to jockey ahead of cars. He was getting nowhere. I mean, we were all trapped and we’d all be trapped in the traffic for at least another hour. Nothing you could do unless you were an ambulance or something. Unless you were a helicopter.

But fifteen minutes later, the van was on my bumper, hitting the horn and I didn’t care. I was happy with the book. Steering with my knee, arm out the window getting a trucker tan.

But then traffic moved up a sudden two or three feet and the van had an opening and sped out from behind me and pulled right next to me and the passenger screamed, “YO! FUCK YOU!” and gave me double birds high in the air. He went to speed ahead, but the traffic was stopped again and it wouldn’t move for another ten minutes.

I looked over at the van. The driver and the passenger. Construction workers too. Bandannas and fluorescent shirts. They looked at me. I looked at them. We’d be neighbors for the next half hour. I waved, I said, “This is a good book. really.” And I went back to reading. 

Here’s a conversation with Scott McClanahan about jobs he’s had …



Bud: Did you have any jobs as a kid, before you had a driver’s license?

Scott: I’m always amazed when people talk about having jobs as a kid. Like until I was 25 or so I thought that was a myth or something. It was like some shit you saw on TV (like on an episode of Beverly Hills 90210). Maybe it’s just being from West Virginia but people’s moms and dads didn’t even have jobs let alone kids. 

I mean you’re always doing crap for somebody and not getting paid for it. That’s the definition of “Christianity” I think.

Julia always makes fun of me because I’m amazed people had jobs as teenagers. I always tell her to check her ‘privilege’ though.


Bud: Yeah in NJ it was different I guess. Rich people came here to vacation, for the beach. They had money to throw away and were lazy because of it. We mowed their lawns. Scarped barnacles off the boats …


Scott: I did used to go “mossing” sometimes when I was a kid and up through high school. That’s where you collect moss off stumps and sell it to the moss guy in town. You’d end up getting 15-20 bucks off that. My mom gave me ten dollars every two weeks to shake the rugs.

You had to watch out for snakes though when you were mossing or this pack of wild dogs that hung around the moss guys’ place. My friends’ younger brother was walking down the street one day and they attacked him.

I don’t think anybody owned the dogs but just fed them. Of course, nobody admits anything after a bunch of dogs bite up a kid.


Scan 50


Bud: What did the Moss Guy do with the moss? 

Scott: They make rope out of it. 

I guess the job thing is like when people ask me if I ever had any family fight in the military. The answer is always – I mean some of them were drafted but that doesn’t mean they served. You’d have to find them first.


Same thing with jobs. 


Bud: When you could drive, did the jobs get any better? What were they?


Scott I got my first car when I was 19. My dad got me a job at the grocery store where he worked. I loved that job. I’d still be doing that today if I could. It’s where I first learned that old people love to steal. If there is one thing they love more than dying–it’s stealing. 


Bud: Like what, sticking Captain Crunch under their shirts and shuffling out of the store?

Scott: Yeah, pretty much. There was this one old woman in particular who would always steal vegetables like collard greens. One time I walked over when she was putting some down her sweat pants and she just said. “Oops. You caught me.” And then she put them back. I always sort of respected her after that and I wanted her to steal.
She used to always come in with her husband and they’d get in a fight in the middle of the store. Every time. They’d call each other, “crazy” and then the fight would escalate until they were shouting “I’m going to fucking kill you.” I saw her smack him in the face one time. They meant it too, but nobody ever did anything about it because it was just the way they were.
They’d lived like this for 50 years or something and this is how they showed love.

Bud: Yeah people find ways to love each other that only they can really explain.
What else did you like about the grocery store?  


Scott: I liked how mythic it felt. I read somewhere that when we come back and study the last century–500 years from now (if we’re still around as a species) one of the most revolutionary changes in human society will be refrigeration and the modern grocery store.

I liked how my dads’ job was to take care of dead things (produce) and try to make it still look alive and how all my friends were eating the food he took care of. It was like he was feeding all of them, making them grow.
God, I sound like a Flinstones’ Vitamin commercial.
Scan 52

Bud: What are some other jobs you’ve worked?


Scott: I’ve loved all my jobs. I worked as a telemarketer, a substitute teacher, sold steak knives door to door, worked at the Women’s Studies Center at school and helped at the local women’s shelter. 

Bud: Tell me more about the Women’s Studies Center
and the Local Women’s Shelter, please.

Scott: I did that in college. We did volunteer work at the local shelter. It was a pretty intense experience. They were super careful about the address of the place getting out. So they would meet us on campus and then drive us to the shelter. That way we didn’t have a specific idea of where we were (and therefore couldn’t tell the address if we were threatened by a crazy ex husband about the shelters location). The first day we worked there a woman saw me and just started screaming. I mean screaming louder than you’ve ever heard. That’s how traumatized she was by her ex. She could barely function around strangers.

Bud:  I’ve never had a job where I helped people. But I worked as a telemarketer too, calling people up, trying to sell them a powder to dump down their toilets and clean out their septic tank. What’d you sell on the phone? 

Scott: Donations for the Fraternal Order of Police. The ones where you think you’re talking to a policeman but it’s actually somebody pretending to be a cop. 

Those guys I worked with were insane. They’d shout at people, intimidate them. “YOU WILL GIVE SIR!”  And people would. I remember one guy would always try out different accents. Like people would give money all the time if he used an Australian accent. It’s like a rule of life: People give money to you if they think you’re Australian. 
That’s my advice for the young or writers bitching about how they don’t get paid: Pretend you’re Australian. 
Scan 51

Bud: What’s it like selling steak knives door to door? 

Scott: I only did it for a week and then I quit. I was eating up too much gas money driving around trying to sell knives. I had a shaved head at the time too. So that’s really what people want to see show up on their door in the morning. A guy with a shaved head carrying a bunch of knives. You always want to invite that guy into your home.

Besides that shitty job, I did help an uncle one summer who used to paint rocks. That was the worst I guess. He was artistic or something so grandma made him paint rocks. I carried his paint cans around for about a few days until I quit. Afterwards, you’d be walking out in the woods and all of the sudden see this giant purple rock in the distance. You’d think, “Holy shit, Uncle Terry’s been here.”

Bud: Is your Uncle still out there painting rocks?

Scott: No. He’s a psychiatrist now in San Francisco.


Daniel Johnston by Scott McClanahan (Author), Ricardo Cavolo (Artist) can be pre-ordered here.

Scott McClanahan (born June 24, 1978) is an American writer, filmmaker, and martial artist.[1] He lives in Beckley, West Virginia and is the author of six books: Stories (2008), Stories II (2009), Stories V! (2011), The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan Vol. 1 (2012), Crapalachia (2013) and Hill William (2013). McClanahan is also a co-founder of Holler Presents, a West Virginia-based production and small press company.[2]


*all drawings by Rae Buleri 


Here are other Work Safe or Die Trying columns


Bud Smith
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About The Author

Bud Smith

Wrote: F250, Tollbooth, Calm Face, Dust Bunny City, among others. Lives in Jersey City, NJ. Works heavy construction.

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